This section is from "Scientific American Supplement". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
James Prescott Joule was born at Salford, on Christmas Eve of the year 1818. His father and his grandfather before him were brewers, and the business, in due course, descended to Mr. Joule and his elder brother, and by them was carried on with success till it was sold, in 1854. Mr. Joule's grandfather came from Elton, in Derbyshire, settled near Manchester, where he founded the business, and died at the age of fifty-four, in 1799. His father, one of a numerous family, married a daughter of John Prescott of Wigan. They had five children, of whom James Prescott Joule was the second, and of whom three were sons--Benjamin, the eldest, James, and John--and two daughters--Alice and Mary. Mr. Joule's mother died in 1836 at the age of forty-eight; and his father, who was an invalid for many years before his death, died at the age of seventy-four, in the year 1858.
Young Joule was a delicate child, and was not sent to school. His early education was commenced by his mother's half sister, and was carried on at his father's house, Broomhill, Pendlebury, by tutors till he was about fifteen years of age. At fifteen he commenced working in the brewery, which, as his father's health declined, fell entirely into the hands of his brother Benjamin and himself.
Mr. Joule obtained his first instruction in physical science from Dalton, to whom his father sent the two brothers to learn chemistry. Dalton, one of the most distinguished chemists of any age or country, was then President of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, and lived and received pupils in the rooms of the Society's house. Many of his most important memoirs were communicated to the Society, whose Transactions are likewise enriched by a large number of communications from his distinguished pupil. Dalton's instruction to the two young men commenced with arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. He then taught them natural philosophy out of Cavallo's text-book, and afterward, but only for a short time before his health gave way, in 1837, chemistry from his own "New System of Chemical Philosophy." "Profound, patient, intuitive," his teaching must have had great influence on his pupils. We find Mr. Joule early at work on the molecular constitution of gases, following in the footsteps of his illustrious master, whose own investigations on the constitution of mixed gases, and on the behavior of vapors and gases under heat, were among the most important of his day, and whose brilliant discovery of the atomic theory revolutionized the science of chemistry and placed him at the head of the philosophical chemists of Europe.
JAMES PRESCOTT JOULE.
Under Dalton, Mr. Joule first became acquainted with physical apparatus; and the interest excited in his mind very soon began to produce fruit. Almost immediately he commenced experimenting on his own account. Obtaining a room in his father's house for the purpose, he began by constructing a cylinder electric machine in a very primitive way. A glass tube served for the cylinder; a poker hung up by silk threads, as in the very oldest forms of electric machine, was the prime conductor; and for a Leyden jar he went back to the old historical jar of Cunaeus, and used a bottle half filled with water, standing in an outer vessel, which contained water also.
Enlarging his stock of apparatus, chiefly by the work of his own hands, he soon entered the ranks as an investigator, and original papers followed each other in quick succession. The Royal Society list now contains, the titles of ninety-seven papers due to Joule, exclusive of over twenty very important papers detailing researches undertaken by him conjointly with Thomson, with Lyon Playfair, and with Scoresby.
Mr. Joule's first investigations were in the field of magnetism. In 1838, at the age of nineteen, he constructed an electro-magnetic engine, which he described in Sturgeon's "Annals of Electricity" for January of that year. In the same year, and in the three years following, he constructed other electro-magnetic machines and electro-magnets of novel forms; and experimenting with the new apparatus, he obtained results of great importance in the theory of electro-magnetism. In 1840 he discovered and determined the value of the limit to the magnetization communicable to soft iron by the electric current; showing for the case of an electro-magnet supporting weight, that when the exciting current is made stronger and stronger, the sustaining power tends to a certain definite limit, which, according to his estimate, amounts to about 140 lb. per square inch of either of the attracting surfaces. He investigated the relative values of solid iron cores for the electro-magnetic machine, as compared with bundles of iron wire; and, applying the principles which he had discovered, he proceeded to the construction of electro-magnets of much greater lifting power than any previously made, while he studied also the methods of modifying the distribution of the force in the magnetic field.
In commencing these investigations he was met at the very outset, as he tells us, with "the difficulty, if not impossibility, of understanding experiments and comparing them with one another, which arises in general from incomplete descriptions of apparatus, and from the arbitrary and vague numbers which are used to characterize electric currents. Such a practice," he says, "might be tolerated in the infancy of science; but in its present state of advancement greater precision and propriety are imperatively demanded. I have therefore determined," he continues, "for my own part to abandon my old quantity numbers, and to express my results on the basis of a unit which shall be at once scientific and convenient."
The discovery by Faraday of the law of electro-chemical equivalents had induced him to propose the voltameter as a measurer of electric currents, but the system proposed had not been used in the researches of any electrician, not excepting those of Faraday himself. Joule, realizing for the first time the importance of having a system of electric measurement which would make experimental results obtained at different times and under various circumstances comparable among themselves, and perceiving at the same time the advantages of a system of electric measurement dependent on, or at any rate comparable with, the chemical action producing the electric current, adopted as unit quantity of electricity the quantity required to decompose nine grains of water, 9 being the atomic weight of water, according to the chemical nomenclature then in use.